Sunday 15 March 2015

Uncertain Places

Jeppe Hein's Appearing Rooms in Preston's Market Square, 2007

In one of curator Elaine Speight's pieces for new book Subplots to a City: Ten Years of In Certain Places, she relates 'Uncertain Places' among a list of mishearings of the programme of artists' work in Preston she has worked on since 2005.

From the outside Preston may verge on the unremarkable. It lacks the visitor destination glamour of its other, larger, North West rivals Manchester and Liverpool. Like Bristol it was damaged by bombing during the Second World War, and so despite being a historic city Preston also has a strange clash of architectural eras represented in its city centre, from the grand flourish of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery to the concrete 60s bus station designed by BDP which was recently saved from demolition and awarded listed building status (to the delight of many architects). But many people live, work, pass through and spend time in Preston. It has a university; a population of 130,000; it's incredibly multicultural; and it’s an administrative centre with courts dealing with major cases from across the north west.

I feel a very personal connection to the history of In Certain Places in Preston as it has coincided with my own history working on public realm projects. In her piece for Subplots to a City, artist Becky Shaw reminisces about the impact of Villa Victoria, an artwork at Liverpool Biennial in 2002 which involved building a one-room hotel around the city's statue of Queen Victoria. Somewhere I have a copy of the Liverpool Echo featuring a picture of me on page 3 sat inside Villa Victoria on the day it launched. I was volunteering for the Biennial as their press and marketing assistant and the photographer wanted someone in the picture.

I first visited Preston around 2004 while still in my first job related to arts in the public realm, working on a large town centre retail scheme in a small West Cumbrian town. I was still in my early 20s and relatively inexperienced. Public art was still basking in the warm fuzzy afterglow of the Angel of the North (1998), and the Regional Development Agencies had been investing heavily in permanent public art commissioning in the regions. A lot has changed in the last ten years – government; the abolition of RDAs; the credit crunch; how artists work in the public realm. The Fourth Plinth was still in its infancy, Liverpool’s Biennial was only just getting under way, and Situations in Bristol began in 2002.

Preston didn’t ever get a B of the Bang, or a Superlambbanana. Instead Preston got In Certain Places and their durational, liminal programme of artists treading lightly upon its spaces. In so many ways their approach has endured considerably better than much permanent public art commissioning of the same era, perhaps precisely because of this lack of permanent traces.

In Certain Places has links with the University of Central Lancashire (UcLan) and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery (run by Preston City Council) but has never apparently been constrained by either the politics or the strategic direction of either organisation. In my view this independence has enabled it to remain free-ranging and free-thinking.

The new book, Subplots to a City reflects on In Certain Places activity really since the beginning in 2003, through a series of essays and photographs. There are contributions from many of the old faces who have been involved over the years, including James Green (now Director of Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange in Cornwall) who developed the original idea for In Certain Places with Charles Quick; Preston City Council Urban Designer Nigel Roberts, many of the artists who have been commissioned by In Certain Places over the years, audience members, participants, and some notable writers, curators and thinkers, including Owen Hatherley and Paul O’Neill.

Can You See Me Now?, Blast Theory, Preston, 2007

In Certain Places set themselves the brief of ‘examining how artists can contribute to the development of a city’. They have brought large scale ambitious projects to Preston that have made a considerable visual impact – Jeppe Hein’s water fountains work, Appearing Rooms; Harris Flights; Shezad Dawood’s feature film ‘Piercing Brightness’. They have commissioned established artists such as John Newling (The Preston Market Mystery project), interactive gaming based work by Blast Theory, sound-based work, local artists, work in empty shops, work rooted deeply in communities (The Family) and even a tour of Preston's weeds. They have also (and continue to) commission and encourage thinking and talking about the city in a way that had not been done before through a series of lectures, symposia and discussions.

Harris Flights, Charles Quick and Research Design, Preston City Centre 2013

The benefit of hindsight makes the book an interesting recent history of the city of Preston, and how it has ebbed and flowed. The shadow of the once promised, but never delivered Tithebarn retail development by Grosvenor - who built Liverpool One - hangs over the history of In Certain Places as it formed part of the original justification for the programme. But reflecting on how this turned out, it is only really a part of the story of Preston, and I can't help feeling slightly relieved the Tithebarn's impact didn't ever come to pass. 

There are challenges for artists being funded by a development when they are interested in asking questions, rather than supplying the gloss of marketing and the grease of community engagement. There are some fascinating snippets of information about Preston in the book, including the fact that its now demolished town hall was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, who also designed St Pancras Station. (Incidentally, googling this led me to a page that suggested that remnants of the masonry from this building can still be found by the river Ribble). It becomes apparent that Elaine and Charles have enjoyed sharing their knowledge and affection for Preston with visiting artists.

This book is for anyone interested in how artists have worked in a site specific context in recent years, and for anyone who wonders about what makes up a city.

You can buy a copy of Subplots to a City: Ten Years of In Certain Places for £15 from In Certain Places new website: 

Saturday 30 August 2014

Read in full my letter to Lancaster Council objecting to their proposal to remove The Tasting Garden

Dear Councillors

RE: Proposal to remove remains of the artwork Tasting Garden from the gardens of The Storey Creative Industries Centre

I write to protest against the proposal to remove the Tasting Garden artwork by Mark Dion that is to be put forward to Council members on Tuesday.

I was employed as Public Art and Regeneration Officer at Lancaster City Council at the time the bronze fruits in the garden were stolen in 2008.

After hearing about the Council’s proposal from John Angus at the Storey Gallery a week ago, I set up an online petition in protest at Lancaster Council’s motion, to enable people to express their views:

At the latest count the petition had been signed by 475 people.

Many are local people which you can see if you look through the comments section; many others are professional public art commissioners such as Isabel Vasseur, Iwona Blazwick (Director of the Whitechapel Gallery), Alistair Hudson (Director of MIMA), Tom Freshwater (Contemporary Art Programme Manager at the National Trust) and Lucy Byatt (Hospitalfield, and formerly Contemporary Art Society and Spike Island, Bristol).

During my time at Lancaster Council I commissioned a Public Art Audit (I have emailed a copy separately) that recognized both the importance of the Mark Dion artwork to Lancaster and the problems that had affected it, with a view that these problems should be avoided in the future with any new commissions.

As evidenced in Lancaster’s Public Art Audit, I discovered that unlike the Tern Project artworks in Morecambe that has a dedicated maintenance programme and budget, the Tasting Garden artwork was not properly insured by Lancaster Council, and hence the stolen bronzes could not be replaced with insurance monies. At the time I left my post, the Storey Gallery were investigating the possibility of fundraising to have the stolen bronzes re-cast in resin, so as to prevent them being attractive to metal thieves (who as I recall, also stole lead from the roof of The Storey, which I presume was replaced).

The Tasting Garden is by far the most significant piece of public art in Lancaster and should be restored, properly insured and maintained for posterity by Lancaster Council for the people of Lancaster, and visitors, to use and enjoy.

I understand that the Tasting Garden is the only permanent public artwork by Mark Dion in the UK (possibly in Europe) and this is something that Lancaster should be proud of, like it is of the Tern Project in Morecambe. The Tasting Garden is a beautiful restful, tranquil oasis close to the bustling heart of Lancaster and the content of the artwork - which involved the planting of rare fruit trees - and its ecological message is as relevant today as the day it was installed.

I believe that the cultural significance of the artwork, nationally and internationally, has been entirely missed by Lancaster Council, and from my correspondence with officers involved I think there has also been a general misconception that the artwork consists primarily of the bronzes that were stolen, which is not the case. It is important to note that the artwork is the entire garden and everything in it, including the Arboriculturalist’s shed, fruit trees, landscaping and paths.

If Lancaster truly is an ‘Arts City’ (see: ) as it would like to portray itself, I do not think that the Council destroying the city’s most important public artwork is the right message to give out. Lancaster is hugely lucky to have The Tasting Garden, and it has the potential to be a considerable cultural asset to the city once again if it were to be restored. I sincerely hope that Gateshead Council do not follow Lancaster’s lead and decide to remove the Angel of the North.

Mark Dion is an internationally recognized American artist who has exhibited at galleries all over the world and whose work is held in collections including the Tate in London (14 works) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His work regularly sells for thousands of pounds. The Tasting Garden is considered important enough that papers relating to it are held permanently by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds:

I understand from the Storey Gallery’s Board Member Lois Willis and former Storey Gallery Curator Suzy Jones that both the Henry Moore Foundation and the Arts Council have expressed an interest in funding the restoration of the artwork, but neither have been approached, partly because the ownership of the garden and therefore the responsibility for the artwork, lies with the Council.

It is a shame that the garden was never properly integrated into the Storey’s redevelopment, linking it properly to the café. Although I understand the financial challenges the project was under, I think this was a great opportunity missed to help bring people into the garden.

I very much hope that you can take my letter into consideration when a decision is made on the future of the artwork. It is my belief that the artwork should be restored, the bronze fruits re-cast in resin, and the Tasting Garden tidied up and reopened to the public. The artwork should be properly recognized and promoted as the huge asset to Lancaster it has the potential to be. Lancaster Council should extend the excellent model of best practice set by the Tern Project in Morecambe to the Tasting Garden.

Yours sincerely
Mrs Suzanne Heath
Freelance Arts Project Manager

Sunday 4 May 2014

The Chinese mall that thinks it's an art gallery

K11 art mall, Shanghai 

The K11 'art shopping mall' opened in Shanghai in 2013 with ten artworks by mainly unknown artists except for a 2004 bronze by Damien Hirst, Wretched War, clearly purchased at great expense (one sold in 2012 for £325,000) and intended to grab some headlines and attract visitors. Staggeringly, the mall also currently appears to be hosting a Monet exhibition - eat that, Westfield.

Wretched War by Damien Hirst, lit pretty badly and displayed incredibly awkwardly at K11 Shanghai. Photo by Eleonora Pallavicino

The flashy Shanghai outpost follows on from the first K11 in Hong Kong and its hotchpotch of 23 artworks (which nevertheless included works by Olafur Eliasson and Yoshitomo Nara). In Shanghai the building has been designed by Kokai Studios to include a nine-storey artificial waterfall and an 'urban farm' where they keep pigs and grow tomatoes, aubergines, mushrooms and chillis hydroponically. So far, so cutting edge. But while this may be a mall with art in it, sadly it looks like the opportunity for the architects to design in collaboration with artists has been missed. Instead artists' work is dotted around the place, sometimes looking rather out of place and second rate next to the building itself, like many of the artworks in Hong Kong.

K11 Shanghai

Inside K11 Shanghai

Photo by Helen Morgan for Inhabitat (read her article on K11 Shanghai here)

(Not sure why they are growing grass but there must be a good reason)

I am intrigued by the approach that uses art as an attraction for shoppers to encourage sales. This is really quite different to how art has been commissioned in new UK shopping centres in recent years. For a start UK developers are usually required to provide artworks through section 106 monies, rather than providing them spontaneously, and in many cases the community has some involvement in the development of the artworks, which are new site-specific commissions rather than works purchased off-the-shelf for display.

The K11 concept began in Hong Kong in 2009 and was founded by Adrian Cheng, who then founded an art foundation and 'built two artist villages in Wuhan and Guiyang'. The K11 website includes an 'art statement' which commits them to 'create an ongoing benefit to the growth of local art circle' - which reminds me of many a badly translated sign I read while I was there teaching in 2012/13.

A more cynical person than me might raise an eyebrow at a shopping centre with 'values' (theirs are apparently Art, People and Nature) but the gimmick must be working at least on a financial level as a third K11 mall is under construction in Beijing. From a curatorial point of view the selection seems to be improving - the first work at Beijing K11 is by Yinka Shonibare - but they still appear to be mainly buying works instead of commissioning them.

Chinese Wall Painting by Yinka Shonibare, 2011

When I was teaching English in Shanghai back in 2012/13, I met many artists, including Li Liang from Eastlink gallery who organised Shanghai's famous anti-Biennale show 'Fuck Off' which was shut down by the police and co-organised with Ai Wei Wei. I went on one trip with a friend who worked at Eastlink to a tower block in Pudong the business district, where artists lived on all floors and we got in and out of the lift visiting them.

As one of Shanghai's many expats, it struck me then as being a city of huge divides, accommodating both the incredibly wealthy populating the fancy bars and restaurants, and those coming in from the countryside to sell strawberries from baskets by the roadside and work on building sites. On a street corner near the school where I was teaching, a small shed one day appeared in which at least 8 men clearly slept for weeks, presumably without any form of heating or lighting, in the cold winter nights while they were erecting a new building at astonishing speed nearby.

I doubt very much if the streets of dusty old villas I wandered down one day in the shadow of the elevated expressways are still there. Shanghai felt to me like a city with commerce and style (perhaps slightly emptily) at its beating heart, and there's no doubt it's a city which has undergone huge development in the last ten years. The nature of the artworks at K11 mall are a perfect reflection of this focus on commerce and style, particularly given how art is used as a commodity - but what a missed opportunity that some of the city's more exciting artists have not been commissioned - although whether the mall would want to show that work - or whether it would help them sell more to their customers - would be another matter entirely.

To read more about K11 visit 

Thursday 17 April 2014

Five-metre-high ceramic tree installed at the International Ceramic Research Centre, Denmark

The Guldagergård Tree (after Spode) by Paul Scott, Sculpture Garden Byparken Skælskør, Denmark 2013

A porcelain tree by Cumbrian artist Paul Scott (b.1953) has recently been installed in the garden of the International Ceramic Research Centre Guldagergård alongside ceramic sculptures by Swedish artist Ulla Viotti, Danish artist Nina Hole and American artist Robert Harrison. The garden forms the public park for the town of Skælskør in Denmark and also contains many rare trees - it was originally planted as an arboretum by the first owners who were fruit farmers.

Paul has a particular interest in ceramics and print (see his book Ceramics & Print) and in his work he often appropriates elements of pre-existing designs which are then re-interpreted in his own work. The tree image was formed by collaging decorative details from a number of existing engraved tableware patterns. These were drawn from English printed landscape wares, particularly Spode, who were based in Stoke and perfected English porcelain production (known as bone china) in the 18th century. Their designs were often based on prints in travel books, which were themselves reproductions of engravings based on paintings by artists of idealised man-made landscapes by designers like Capability Brown - a long way from the original. Paul's sculpture transposes idealistic designs from tableware back into the landscape itself.

The tree in production

A series of cobalt blue underglaze decals were screenprinted onto handmade tiles sourced from Jingdezhen in China, the town long renowned for its production of high quality porcelain. Ai Wei Wei's Sunflower Seeds were made at Jingdezhen where it is thought porcelain has been made for two thousand years. This provenance also references the original source of all blue and white wares, which became highly coveted in Europe. For years potteries in Britain tried to reproduce the pure white of Chinese porcelain without success.

Paul Scott is an artist whose work I've admired since I saw a 2002 exhibition he co-curated at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. 'Are You Sitting Comfortably?' displayed a beautiful and witty collection of 40 toilets (once a highly decorated item, being a luxurious thing to have). Sadly I can't find any info online to share about this exhibition as there is nothing archived, but I think from my recollection it was arranged so that you could walk among the toilets but they were displayed uniformly as if they were a single work. (It very much reminded me of a Rachel Whiteread installation I'd seen of casts of the spaces underneath chairs.)

After this I suggested Paul for a commission in the new public toilets in Workington and he later went on to produce an incredibly beautiful commission for Northern Print in 2009 called Willow Creek - I'd make the trip just to wash my hands in this sink.

Willow Creek at Northern Print Studios, Ouseburn, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2009

Paul's subversive and fascinating work has included tableware as well as public commissions, but the common thread is a concentration and exploration of surface, setting him apart from many other potters (although increasingly younger practitioners such as Parasite Ceramics are changing this). Paul references the decorative history of mass-produced transferware (particularly the distinctive blue-and-white willow pattern scenes of Minton) as well as the changing process of ceramic production, and many of his works have an underlying political resonance, commenting on the changing nature of our rural landscape and our human interventions, whether that be farming or signs of energy production such as windmills, nuclear power stations and electricity pylons. 

Following the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Cumbria Paul made a series of plates with smouldering carcasses on them - a view that became disarmingly normal at the time. Paul is currently making work which references old conservation methods for repairing ceramics, such as stapling and wiring.

So I'm particularly excited that Paul has a solo exhibitionConfected, Borrowed and Blue, coming up in November 2014 at the Holburne Museum in Bath, where I live. The exhibition will include the first outcome of Paul's recently funded research into the Spode copper plate archive.

Oh, and I'd love to work with Paul on a new public commission in the UK - perhaps Bath next, eh Paul? 

Saturday 29 March 2014

The Line sculpture walk to go ahead in east London

The Line, a new 'sculpture walk' proposed for east London is due to open this summer after meeting the phase one £141k funding target on crowdfunding website Spacehive(You can visit to see the campaign and watch their mini-film which features some heavyweight support in the form of 2012 Olympics opening ceremony creator and film-maker Danny Boyle.) The Line will show existing works of 'modern and contemporary' sculpture over a 3-year period as well as a new commission, along a route following the line of the Meridian. This will create a link between the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford and the O2 in North Greenwich, south east London

The Line planned route

Works will be selected by a panel through an open submission process. The selection panel will include artist Mark Wallinger, Line co-founder Megan Piper, collector Anita Zabludowicz, art critic Richard Cork, a local resident (tick) and chair of a charity developing a new 'cultural quarter' (it's a 'thing' now) at Cody Dock, Omar Kholief, curator at the Whitechapel Gallery and Cllr Conor McAuley from Newham Council. 

It seems to me quite a curious and old-fashioned project, as rather than commissioning new site-specific works for the place (which is much more difficult), its focus is on siting primarily existing work - juxtaposing them with the environment and any other nearby artworks. Any resonances at all with the location of the artworks will be entirely accidental. While it is a noble aim to show work that would otherwise be in storage, for me this project primarily misses the point (and surely the real opportunity and excitement) of artwork in the public realm - new site-specific work responds to the space it is commissioned for, and if it is successful, has a special resonance in that place accordingly. While this approach can be more expensive it would still be possible to put forward an incredibly exciting programme for £500k, particularly if some works were well-integrated into the landscape and therefore into the landscape budgets. As there are 2 phases and phase 1 is £140k, I would imagine £500k is close to what they are aiming for. The selection of pre-made work also limits the possibilities for engagement with the work as the only way of engaging with it is to go and look at the finished work (I wondered about this lack of engagement opportunity and thought perhaps it might explain why they had no Arts Council funding.) There are so many more engagement opportunities which could be investigated when new work is being commissioned, during the process of drawing up the brief, and during the development and making of the work.

I'd be interested to know The Line's criteria for selecting the sites and also the work to occupy sites which they were not created for (presumably they want work that has been created to go anywhere - a rich person's garden, Chatsworth etc). But the open submission process is also interesting - which well known artists submit work this way? None! With a high public profile project such as the Fourth Plinth several well known artists may be asked to develop a proposal. But do they all enter work into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition? No they don't, because they don't have to - they already have offers of exhibitions and at least one private gallery showing their work. So presumably the galleries will be submitting their work for this show based on what they have left hanging around? Is this 'leftovers' approach really the right one for such an important route and collection of sites? It reminds me of the Cass Sculpture Foundation approach or the recent Tony Craggs on show near the V&A.  It raises my suspicions about how transparent the selection process will really be - presumably the organisers are already tapping up the artists whose work they really want to show, with a few spaces left for everyone else. I would prefer they didn't bother with this pretence of anyone being able to submit work - it clearly isn't hoped or anticipated that a whole group of new young artists' work will be shown if they are offered a Damien Hirst or a Michael Craig-Martin. 

It also seems that it is presumed the works will happily be lent for free for 3 years by the artists and art collections and therefore the artists won't receive any payment except for the, clearly immense, glory of having their work displayed in a public place. How many emerging artists can afford to create bronzes etc if not for commission (and therefore already sold)? There will be a fairly limited number of young artists whose work will be suitable - the only way these artists will get a look in is with the new commission being offered (I await details of the budget and brief). The approach taken will be most suited to an artist such as Charles Hadcock who creates very large bronze sculptures.

The project is clearly a reflection of the experience its creators, Megan Piper and Clive Dutton. Megan is a previous Momart employee (so clearly focused on art that is 'stuff' to be moved about, bought and sold, stored and shown). Megan founded The Piper Gallery which was open for 18 months and closed in December 2013. Clive Dutton is an  ex-local authority regeneration specialist who was involved with the regeneration legacy of East London and previously worked for the London Borough of Newham, and Birmingham Council. 

Two of the funders who have contributed on the Spacehive campaign are quite fascinating - one 'R. Todd Ruppert' has contributed a staggering £44k, and the venture capitalist 'Frederic de Mevius' a further £10k. R. Todd Ruppert, if he is this man I googled, has the most astonishing hair and teeth I have seen for a while: 
Used car salesman from the 1950s, anyone?
I kept wondering why they would have invested so much money in an arts project, and I can only guess that there are perhaps links with property they own, the value or aspect of which will be enhanced by the artworks being in situ.

I was also interested to see that Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the architects who have 'come on board to create visual material for the project', have also managed to cagole £16k out of their charitable foundation towards the project - so that's handy isn't it? (Although, admittedly, it's nice to see developers/architects putting their hands in their pockets in the name of art, so I shouldn't be complaining. I guess they too must have an interest benefitted by the project - a few developments along the route - or else they will be able to reduce their section 106 agreement by pointing out that they have already contributed towards public art through this project.)

Lastly I am intrigued by the 'project managers' Nous Collaborative, who describe themselves as 'the only brand space agency that centres around bringing brands to life through collaborations with the world's best architects'. Sounds interesting. Just remind me what a 'brand space agency' is again?

I will be fascinated to see how this project develops and whether the quality of the work will win me over despite the approach they have taken.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Dylan Thomas mural unveiled in Swansea

A major new work by Welsh artist Pete Fowler (who has in the past created artwork for album covers for the band Super Furry Animals) has recently been unveiled opposite Swansea railway station as part of Art Across the High Street, a scheme to improve the appearance of the city centre by commissioning artworks for disused or run down retail units. The artwork is on the site of a former nightclub.

The work was inspired by local icon, poet Dylan Thomas  (for which the centenary will be celebrated in 2014) and work created by local schoolchildren in workshops. The mural measures 9m x 6m and has Dylan as its centrepiece, complemented by Fowler’s unique take on Swansea including it’s maritime and mining heritage, Viking history, UFO sightings alongside two giant horses and a pair of pink octopus. 

The project is funded by the Welsh Government, City & County of Swansea and Swansea BID and delivered in partnership with LOCWS International

This work is looking phenomenal on the high street, I'd love to see a picture of the building beforehand, and I wonder what the response has been like locally?

To find out more about the project, visit: 

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Richard Deacon commission forms part of Piccadilly development in London

The Eagle Place development at St James's (showing the artwork in red)

A new glazed terracotta cornice by sculptor Richard Deacon (b.1949) will soon be revealed on the facade of a major new development in Piccadilly, London. 

Deacon, who won the Turner Prize in 1987, was commissioned to work with Eric Parry Architects (who were responsible for the recent lauded extension to the Holburne Museum in Bath) on the work for Eagle House on the St James's Gateway scheme.

The artwork is 25 metres long and consists of 39 glazed terracotta pieces.

Map of faience facade elements

According to Will Mclean in an article on the Architectural Review website, 
'As a sculptor acquainted with the deft manipulation of matter, Deacon studied and has remade the cornice as a ‘chopped up’ performance of 14 variable prismatic forms, each mutated from a single genotypic cross-section, but confined in height, or what Parry described as ‘the field of play’ to a not inconsiderable 1200mm. In addition, each of these 39 sculptures, extending over 25m, is highly coloured with facsimiles of Deacon’s painting using screen-printed waterslide transfers (decals) in a process originally invented for the pottery industry; each facet of the cornice blocks is differently coloured, further emphasising the geometric transformations.'

The artist checks the waterslide transfers

The artwork is due to be unveiled in March 2013. Look forward to seeing it.

You can read the article (which focuses on the technical side of working with terracotta) here:

There is an article about the project on the Evening Standard website here: